Triton's Plumes: The Dust Devil Hypothesis

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Science  19 Oct 1990:
Vol. 250, Issue 4979, pp. 435-437
DOI: 10.1126/science.250.4979.435


Triton's plumes are narrow columns 10 kilometers in height, with tails extending horizontally for distances over 100 kilometers. This structure suggests that the plumes are an atmospheric rather than a surface phenomenon. The closest terrestrial analogs may be dust devils, which are atmospheric vortices originating in the unstable layer close to the ground. Since Triton has such a low surface pressure, extremely unstable layers could develop during the day. Patches of unfrosted ground near the subsolar point could act as sites for dust devil formation because they heat up relative to the surrounding nitrogen frost. The resulting convection would warm the atmosphere to temperatures of 48 kelvin or higher, as observed by the Voyager radio science team. Assuming that velocity scales as the square root of temperature difference times the height of the mixed layer, a velocity of 20 meters per second is derived for the strongest dust devils on Triton. Winds of this speed could raise particles provided they are a factor of 103 to 104 less cohesive than those on Earth.

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